Near Pullinlahti, Finland
With a snap of his pole, Magnus knocked a pillow of snow off a branch. Hitting the ground with a whump it revealed the river ahead, a line of India ink snaking through the whitening landscape. Once winter grew strong the river would be frozen enough to support him and other practicing skiers. For now it would run as it always had during the summers, free and untouched.
Magnus pushed forward on his skis and felt wet snow patter on his eyelashes. Snow hissed through the pine needles as background to the rhythmic shush-shush of Magnus’ skis. The first snow of the season was a time to try out newly waxed skis, and get away from house chores for a while.
“Hold there, you brute, I’ve got something to tell you!”
Magnus turned back to see Hannu crashing through the brush, his ski tips riding up and over new saplings. His rifle bounced on his back on a hand-knotted leather strap, the barrel catching branches as he burst forward.
“Jumalauta, brother, have some respect!” Magnus admonished. “Give the trees a chance to get above a meter before you flatten them.”
Hannu slid past with a triumphant thrust of his poles and smiled back at his brother. “What a saint you are. You’ll do well raising children and tending to your knitting. Leave the skiing to us men.”
Lifting one ski over a rock and pinwheeling his arms, Hannu barreled down a slope and step-turned onto a narrow road beside the river. The snow was so fresh that his edges cut muddy scars in the roadbank. Magnus shook his head and tightened the shoulder straps of his canvas pack. At this pace, he thought, Hannu will make another half hour before calling for lunch.
At the thought of lunch, Magnus ran through the items in his pack again: one half loaf of ruispala brown bread, three apples, one small bottle of brandy (cheap brandy, Hannu’s contribution), a ten-inch knife, two boxes of shells, five meters of thin rope, two metal rings, and a small oiled leather case holding father’s German field glasses (taken without permission). A good stock for a day’s expedition.
He pushed off with his right foot and slid through fresh wet snow, hearing the grunts and whoops of his brother disappearing around the bend of the river.
The boys sat on a fallen birch tree, its white flaky trunk bowing under their weight. Hannu had eaten half of the bread already and was tearing bits from the middle of the loaf and rolling them into balls.
“Who do you think is going to win the Jussi Jumpi race this year, Magnus?”
“Not you, if you keep skiing like that. You’re totally out of control and wasting all that energy flailing and jumping around.”
Hannu popped a dough ball into his mouth and laughed. “Typical. Like you’re going to win. ‘Bear trained to ski comes in ten hours after the race concludes’ the headlines will read.”
Magnus snatched the loaf away with a yank. “Well, bear is hungry and wants some bread.”
Hannu reached into the backpack, hanging on a branch stump beside them. “That’s okay, I’m going to wash it down with this anyway.” He pulled out the amber bottle of brandy with a flourish and double-raise of his eyebrows.
“Let me guess, Lasse sold that to you? Ah…who knows, maybe your technique will improve after that. Though it’s hard to get a good rhythm when you’re puking every few minutes.” Magnus sighed and looked at the sky. Soon the winter sun would struggle to cross the sky before falling into darkness. Time to get home.
Hannu took a long swig, then coughed into his arm as his face turned scarlet. “Good…stuff…”
Magnus grabbed at the bottle but Hannu pulled it back and Magnus tumbled forward into the fresh snow. He sat up and pulled out the bread beneath his leg, now compressed into a wedge and coated with leaves and dirt.
“Kusipää!” He threw the bread at his brother and laughed. “You’ve had enough, Hannu!”
Hannu roared with laughter as Magnus struggled to sit up and brush off his jacket. He took another swig and screwed the cap tightly before tucking it in his pocket.
“So I’m the drunk one? Better get your balance before the race, slow bear.”
He stood up and reached for his skis just as Magnus rolled over and swung his arm into the backs of Hannu’s knees, sending him toppling forward into the snow. There was a muffled ‘oof’ as Hannu landed face-first into a pile of brush and snow.
Magnus stood up, shook wet snow from his arms, and shoved his boot into Hannu’s rear, pushing him further in the brush. That should teach him.
“Careful brother, keep your footing around here.”
Magnus grabbed his skis and ran through the snow as Hannu turned back and struggled to his feet.
Hannu laughed and strapped his boots into his skis. “Now the race is on!”
© Peter Soutowood 2010